Christians in Turkey Acquitted of ‘Insulting Turkishness’

But court heavily fines them for dubious conviction of collecting personal data.

ISTANBUL, October 19 (CDN) — After four years of legal battle in a Turkish court, a judge acquitted two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge.

Four years ago this month, Turan Topal, 50, and Hakan Tastan, 41, started a legal battle after gendarmerie officers produced false witnesses to accuse them of spreading their faith and allegedly “insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.”

At the Silivri court an hour west of Istanbul, Judge Hayrettin Sevim on Thursday (Oct. 14) acquitted the defendants of two charges that they had insulted the Turkish state (Article 301) and that they had insulted its people (Article 216) by spreading Christianity. Sevim cited lack of evidence.

He found them guilty, however, of collecting information on citizens without permission (Article 135) and sentenced them to seven months of imprisonment each. The court ruled that the two men could each pay a 4,500 lira (US$3,170) fine instead of serving time, said their lawyer Haydar Polat.

Tastan expressed mixed feelings about the verdicts.

“For both Turan and I, being found innocent from the accusation that we insulted the Turkish people was the most important thing for us, because we’ve always said we’re proud to be Turks,” Tastan said by telephone. “But it is unjust that they are sentencing us for collecting people’s information.”

At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which has since acquired official association status and is now called The Association for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible. The two men had used contact information that individuals interested in Christianity had volunteered to provide on the association’s website.

Administrators of the association stated openly to local authorities that their goal was to disseminate information about Christianity.

The two men and their lawyer said they will be ready to appeal the unjust decision of the court when they have seen the official statement, which the court should issue within a month. Polat said the appeal process will take over a year.

“Why should we have to continue the legal battle and appeal this?” asked Tastan. “We are not responsible for the information that was collected. So why are they fining us for this? So, we continue our legal adventure.”

Still, he expressed qualified happiness.

“We are free from the charges that we have insulted the Turkish state and the people of Turkey and we’re glad for that, but we are sorry about the court’s sentence,” Tastan said. “We’re happy on one hand, and sorry on the other.”

The court hearing lasted just a few minutes, said Polat.

“The judges came to the court hearing ready with their decision,” Polat said. “Their file was complete, and there was neither other evidence nor witnesses.”

Polat was hesitant to comment on whether the decision to convict the men of collecting private data without permission was because they are Christians. He did underline, however, that the court’s decision to fine the men was unjust, and that they plan to appeal it after the court issues an official written verdict.

“This was the court’s decision,” said Polat, “but we believe this is not fair. This decision is inconsistent with the law.”


Christianity on Trial

The initial charges in 2006 against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that some Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and making insults against Turkishness, the military and Islam.

In March 2009 the Turkish Ministry of Justice issued a statement claiming that approval to try the two men’s case under the controversial Article 301came in response to the “original” statement by three young men that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Two of the three witnesses, however, stated in court that they didn’t even know Topal and Tastan. The third witness never appeared in court. Prosecutors were unable to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms. At the same time, they questioned their right to speak openly about Christianity with others.

Polat and his legal partners had based their defense on the premise that Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” Polat told Compass last year. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking, it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”

The lawyer and the defendants said that prosecuting lawyers gave political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light, claiming that missionary activities were carried out by imperialistic countries intending to harm Turkey.

Tastan and Topal became Christians more than 15 years ago and changed their religious identity from Muslim to Christian on their official ID cards.

Initially accompanied by heavy media hype, the case had been led by ultranationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz and a team of six other lawyers. Kerincsiz had filed or inspired dozens of Article 301 court cases against writers and intellectuals he accused of insulting the Turkish nation and Islam.

Because of Kerincsiz’s high-level national profile, the first few hearings drew several hundred young nationalist protestors surrounding the Silivri courthouse, under the eye of dozens of armed police. But the case has attracted almost no press attention since Kerincsiz was jailed in January 2008 as a suspect in the overarching conspiracy trials over Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals, politicians and other key figures. The lawyer is accused of an active role in the alleged Ergenekon plot to discredit and overthrow Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government.

Ergenekon has been implicated in the cases of murdered priest Andreas Santoro, Armenian editor Hrant Dink, and the three Christians in Malatya: Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and Tilmann Geske.

In a separate case, in March of 2009 Tastan and Topal were charged with “illegal collection of funds.” Each paid a fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in Istanbul. The verdict could not be appealed in the Turkish legal courts. This ruling referred to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local authorities.

Report from Compass Direct News


Alleged ring-leader retracts testimony implicating suspected link to ‘masterminds.’

MALATYA, Turkey, May 28 (Compass Direct News) – Prosecution efforts to tie the murderers of three Christians here to state-linked masterminds were set back on Friday (May 22) when the alleged ring-leader unexpectedly contradicted his previous testimony implicating a suspected “middleman.”

As the suspected middleman between the murderers and “deep state” elements, Huseyin Yelki, was testifying at Friday’s hearing, Emre Gunaydin – whose previous private testimony led to Yelki’s arrest – stood up and said, “Huseyin Yelki is not guilty, he’s being held in prison for no reason.”

The prosecuting team and judges at the Malatya Third Criminal Court froze at the statement, and then demanded to know why he had previously implicated Yelki. Gunaydin said he did so because Yelki was a Christian missionary.

Gunaydin has also implicated Varol Bulent Aral, a journalist allegedly attached to a far-reaching political conspiracy known as Ergenekon. Aral is the second suspected middleman.

For his part, Yelki testified during the court hearing that he had met Gunaydin only once prior to the murders. According to Gunaydin’s previous testimony, Yelki’s brother facilitated various meetings between Gunaydin and Yelki in which they planned the knife attack on the three Christians at a Christian publishing house. During a private hearing this past winter, a judge showed Gunaydin photos of different people, and he immediately identified Yelki’s brother.

Gunaydin’s retraction raised suspicion among the judges that in recent months he has received visits in prison from those behind the murders who have pressured him to change his statement.

“Tell me the truth, have you spoken to anyone?” the judge barked at him.

“I swear to God, I have not!” said Gunaydin.

The judges requested a list of everyone who has visited Gunaydin and the other four suspects – Salih Gurler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim – while they’ve been in prison over the last two years. Further questioning of Yelki failed to yield clear and incriminating answers, and the judges released him.

Lead prosecuting lawyer Orhan Kemal Cengiz told Compass that records of the jail visits to Gunaydin may be inconclusive.

“These visits might be off the record [unofficial], we don’t know,” Cengiz said. “But we have a tiny hope that we may catch something through these records.”

Yelki, a former volunteer at Zirve Publishing Co., was taken into custody in February on suspicion that he had incited the five young suspects to kill the three Christians, Turkish Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Tilmann Geske, in April 2007.

Cengiz called Yelki’s testimony a “disaster.” Even though it is apparent to the court that Yelki has had many contacts with gendarmerie intelligence, Cengiz said, he was not able to explain the nature of his calls, claiming that he wanted to speak to them about the Bible.

“We are very suspicious about him,” Cengiz said. “Everyone is suspicious.”

As a result of the last hearing, the court also asked for a record of all of Yelki’s bank statements over the past few years to see if they point to ties with gendarmerie or other suspicious activities.

“To us it is obvious that Yelki is one of the links that connects these youngsters to upper levels,” said Cengiz. “But he refused to cooperate, and in my view it is also obvious that Emre was pressured to change his statement, because in his earlier statement that he gave the prosecutor, he accused Yelki of instigating them to commit this crime. But he changed after that.”

Cengiz said that Yelki made other misrepresentations, such as his claim in court to have stayed in bed for two months recovering from leg surgery, when telephone records showed he hopped between different southeastern Turkish cities during that time.

“It was obvious that he was telling a lot of lies, because he said that after the release from the hospital he rested for two months,” said Cengiz, “but according to his telephone he was traveling and very intensively, actually.”

Missionaries as Criminals

An undercover gendarme who works in drug and gun enforcement, Mehmet Çolak, also took the stand on Friday (May 22). Phone records show that he may have been one of the communication links between alleged masterminds and others, and his name was mentioned in an informant letter sent to the court.

His testimony, however, yielded no information helpful to prosecutors. When defense lawyers asked him which bureau of the gendarmerie follows missionary activities in Turkey, Çolak replied, “Counter-terrorism.” The response typified the defense argument that the Christian victims brought the murder upon themselves by undertaking missionary activity.

In their concluding statements, defense lawyers requested that the court conduct a thorough investigation involving police, the army and gendarmerie to establish whether missionary activities are a crime. The judges rejected their request.

Prosecuting lawyers said that the lawyers have been trying to vilify missionary activities from the beginning of the case in an attempt to gain a lighter sentence for the five young men and also to make a nationalist political point.

“It is a very poor tactic,” said Cengiz. “At the final hearing, they would like to make a defense that states, ‘This attack was provoked … You see these people [missionaries] are trying to divide our country.’ They want to say that this is an unjust provocation, and as a result these youngsters were very angry and lost their temper. But this is rubbish.”

Ergenekon Trial

Hearings and investigations of Ergenekon, a clandestine nationalist group believed to have sought to overthrow the government by engineering domestic chaos, continue apart from the Malatya trial.

Two suspects arrested in relation to the case, Aral and Veli Kucuk, a retired general, have also been implicated in the Malatya murders. They were both questioned by Ergenekon prosecutors and judges earlier this month.

Nearly 140 people have been arrested in connection to the case. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been criticized for allegedly allowing indiscriminate arrests of people who oppose his political line and who are not connected to the “deep state” cabal.

Kemal Kerinçsiz, a Turkish lawyer famous for filing court cases and complaints against dozens of Turkish journalists and authors for “insulting Turkishness,” has also been arrested in relation to Ergenekon. Kerinçsiz is responsible for the cases opened against Turkish Christians Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal, who have been on trial for two years for “insulting Turkishness” because they spoke openly about their faith.

In the next Malatya court hearing scheduled for June 19, judges expect to hear the testimony of Aral and others who have been implicated.


Although it was expected that the Malatya hearings would become part of the Ergenekon trials, Cengiz said that chances are slim if the thin evidence thus far does not become more substantial.

Yelki’s release, he said, showed that although his testimony tainted his credibility, there was not enough evidence that he is connected to the case.

“My conclusion is that we’re going nowhere,” said a tired Cengiz, “because the powers behind the scenes were very successful in organizing everything. They organized everything, and we’re going nowhere.”

In order for the Malatya and Ergenekon hearings to merge, Cengiz said, the court will need something more solid than implicated names.

“We don’t have something concrete,” said Cengiz. “All these names are in the air … all connections show gendarmerie intelligence, but there is no concrete evidence yet, and apparently there will be none. The trouble is that it’s very frustrating – we know the story but we cannot prove it.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Ministry of Justice decision suggests spreading Christianity may be unlawful in Turkey.

ISTANBUL, March 20 (Compass Direct News) – Turkey’s decision last month to try two Christians under a revised version of a controversial law for “insulting Turkishness” because they spoke about their faith came as a blow to the country’s record of freedom of speech and religion.

A Silivri court on Feb. 24 received the go-ahead from the Ministry of Justice to try Christians Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan under the revised Article 301 – a law that has sparked outrage among proponents of free speech as journalists, writers, activists and lawyers have been tried under it. The court had sent the case to the Ministry of Justice after the government on May 8, 2008 put into effect a series of changes – which critics have called “cosmetic” – to the law.

The justice ministry decision came as a surprise to Topal and Tastan and their lawyer, as missionary activities are not illegal in Turkey. Defense lawyer Haydar Polat said no concrete evidence of insulting Turkey or Islam has emerged since the case first opened two years ago.

“The trial will continue from where it left off – to be honest, we thought they wouldn’t give permission [for the case to continue],” said Polat, “because there was no persuasive evidence of ‘degrading Turkishness and Islam’ in the case file.”

A Ministry of Justice statement claimed that approval to try the case came in response to the original statement by three young men – Fatih Kose, Alper Eksi and Oguz Yilmaz – that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Prosecutors have yet to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms, and Polat said Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” said Polat. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”

The lawyer contended that prosecuting lawyers have given political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light.

“From their point of view, missionary activity carried out by missionaries of imperialistic countries is harmful for Turkish culture and the country overall,” Polat said.

Tastan said that although he has always been confident that he and Topal will be acquitted, the decision of the Ministry of Justice to try them under Article 301 left him deeply disappointed in his own country.

“After this last hearing, I realized that I didn’t feel as comfortable as I had been in the past,” Tastan told Compass. “I believed that surely the Ministry of Justice would never make the decision they did.”

Tastan said he was uneasy that his country would deem his Christian faith as insulting to the very Turkishness in which he takes pride.

“This is the source of my uneasiness: I love this country so much, this country’s people, that as a loving Turk who is a Christian to be tried for insulting Turkey has really cut me up,” said Tastan. “Because I love this nation, I’ve never said anything against it. That I’m a Christian, yes, I say that and I will continue to do so. But I think they are trying to paint the image that we insult, dislike and hate Turks. This really makes me sad and heartsick.”

If nothing else, Tastan said, the trial has provided an opportunity for Turkish Christians to show God’s love and also make themselves known to their compatriots. He called the ministerial decision duplicitous.

“A government that talks the European Union talk, claims to respect freedom, democracy, and accept everyone, yet rejects me even though I’m a Turkish citizen who is officially a Christian on his ID card, has made me sad,” he said. “That’s why I’m disappointed.”



At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which last week acquired official association status and is now called “The Society for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible.” In the last court hearing, prosecutors demanded that further inquiries be conducted into the nature of the association since the defendants used their contact lists to reach people interested in Christianity.

“Because they think like this, they believe that the Bible center is an important unit to the missionary activities,” said Polat. “And they allege that those working at this center are also guilty.”

The court has yet to decide whether police can investigate the Christian association.

Polat and the defendants said they believe that as no evidence has been presented, the case should come to a conclusion at the next hearing on May 28.

“From a legal standpoint, we hope that they will acquit us, that it will be obvious that there is no proof,” said Tastan. “There have only been allegations … none of the witnesses have accused us in court. I’m not a legal expert, but I believe that if there is no proof and no evidence of ‘insulting,’ then we should be set free.”

The initial charges prepared by the Silivri state prosecutor against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.

Despite a court summons sent to the Silivri and Istanbul gendarme headquarters requesting six gendarme soldiers to testify as prosecution witnesses, none have stepped forward to do so. At a June 24, 2008 hearing, two witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses – including one of the original complainants, Kose – have failed to show up on various trial dates.

“We believe the case has arrived to a concluding stage, because all evidence has been collected and the witnesses have been heard,” Polat said. “We believe the accused will be dismissed. The inverse would surprise us.”

Polat underlined that while the case shows that human rights violations in Turkey are still a “serious problem,” it is also true that Turkey’s desire to join the European Union has brought sincere efforts to improve democratic processes. He attested, however, that establishing a true democracy can be a long process that requires sacrifices.

“It is my conviction that there is no other way for people to believe in and establish democracy than through struggle,” he said.

Tastan added that he sees hope that the notion that being “Turkish” means being Muslim is breaking. Due to exposure to media coverage of the murder trial of the April 18, 2007 slaughter of three Christians in Malatya, he said, Turks are becoming aware that there are fellow citizens who are Christians and are even dying for their Lord.

“This makes me happy, because it means freedom for the Turkish Christians that come after us,” said Tastan. “At least they won’t experience these injustices. I believe we will accomplish this.”

For the time being, though, the Ministry of Justice’s decision that Tastan and Topal can be tried under the revised Article 301 law appears to contribute to the belief that to promulgate a non-Islamic faith in Turkey is tantamount to treason. As Turkish online human rights magazine Bianet headlined its coverage of the decision, “Ministerial Edict: You Can Be a Christian But Do Not Tell Anyone!”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Case against two converts drags on; media already passed sentenced on Christianity.

ISTANBUL, November 12 (Compass Direct News) – Two years into a trial for “insulting Turkishness” that has been light on evidence and heavy on mud-slinging at Turkey’s Protestant community, a court proceeding last week brought no progress.

Another witness for the prosecution failed to appear in the trial of Turkish Christians Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan, charged with “insulting Turkishness” and spreading Christianity through illegal methods. Moreover, a Justice Ministry answer to the court about the viability of charges under Turkey’s controversial Article 301 had yet to arrive at the court last week.

In the last hearing in June, Silivri Criminal Court Judge Mehmet Ali Ozcan ordered a review of the two Christian converts’ alleged violations of the controversial article of the Turkish penal code on “insulting Turkishness.” But the court is still waiting for the Justice Ministry to decide whether they can be tried under Article 301 of the penal code.

The judge set the next hearing for Feb. 24, 2009 while the court awaits a response on whether the Christians can be charged under the controversial article.

Topal and Tastan are still charged with reviling Islam (Article 216) and compiling information files on private citizens (Article 135).

In what critics called “cosmetic” revisions of Article 301, the Turkish government amended it in May to require Justice Ministry permission to file such cases. Put into effect on May 8, the changes also redefined the vague offense of “insulting Turkishness” to read “insulting the Turkish nation.”

While the court awaited a decision on Article 301, in the hearing on Nov. 4 it did free the defendants from forced attendance at future hearings. This, according to defense lawyer Haydar Polat, was the only progress made by the court; he added that a witness or evidence would have been better. For lack of these, he said, the prosecution has needlessly dragged out the case.

“In both cases [against them], the only acceptable progress is the testimony of a witness,” said Polat. “Then again, the fact that the defendants are free from having to attend every trial is in a sense progress too.”


Lame Witnesses

The initial charges prepared by the Silivri state prosecutor against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme,” claiming that some Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and making insults against Turkishness, the military and Islam.

Despite a court summons sent to the Silivri and Istanbul gendarme headquarters requesting six named gendarme soldiers to testify as prosecution witnesses in the case, none have stepped forward to testify.

“They will be called in the next hearing as well,” Polat told Compass.

At the June 24 hearing, two teenage witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses have failed to show up on various trial dates, and last week another witness called by prosecution, Fatih Kose, did not appear.

“There is no lack of witnesses, but as far as we are concerned, these characters’ accounts are irrelevant to the truth and full of contradictions,” said Polat. “I mean there is no believable and persuasive argument, nor a coherent witness.”

Last week a police officer from the precinct where Topal and Tastan were allegedly seen doing missionary activities was summoned to court to testify. He told the court that he indeed worked in the precinct but knew nothing about the activities of the two Christians.

Eleven months ago, the appointed prosecutor himself had demanded that the court acquit the two Christians, declaring there was “not a single concrete, credible piece of evidence” to support the accusations against them. This prosecutor was removed from the case, and two months later the judge hearing the case withdrew over prosecution complaints that he was not impartial.

Two key figures pressing the Article 301 charges and promoting sensational media coverage of the Silivri trial proceedings are now jailed themselves, unable to attend the hearings.

Both ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz and spokesperson Sevgi Erenerol of the Turkish Orthodox Church – a Turkish nationalist denomination with no significant following – are accused of playing leading roles in Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy.

Since mid-January, 47 people have been jailed and face trial for involvement in the alleged crime network, said to have orchestrated numerous killings and violence as part of a nationalist plot to overthrow the Turkish government by 2009.

Asked about the chances of closing the case that has made no progress for two years due to lack of evidence against the defendants, Polat said he was hopeful his clients would find justice in the Turkish legal labyrinth.

“As lawyers, we believe that both of our clients will be acquitted,” he said. “Come February we expect that the Justice Ministry will not approve the opening of a public case on the basis of ‘insulting Turkishness.’”


Slandering Christians

The trial of Topal and Tastan has included its share of mud-slinging at Turkish Protestants, estimated at 3,000 to 3,500 people in a country of 70 million, deepening the nation’s prejudices against them.

This legal battle has been less about guilt or innocence and more about tainting the community’s image, according to a member of the legal committee of the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey.

The Christian Turk from the legal committee told Compass that in 2006, when the charges against Topal and Tastan first came to light, there were news reports for days claiming that Christians tricked children in elementary schools, paid people to come to church and gave women away for sex, among other absurd assertions.

“The goal was to create disinformation, and they succeeded at portraying Christians in a negative light,” he said.

The source said that this was the primary goal of ultranationalist lawyer Kerincsiz’s team, which he believes is behind the cases brought against Topal and Tastan as well as the delay in the outcome.

“On the first day of the hearings, when the case opened, I told those around me that nothing would come of this case,” he said.

The legal committee member said media created a psychological war against Turkish Christians. Other members of the Protestant community believe another goal was to deter any evangelism or outreach by Turkish Christians.

“It was to discourage the whole Christian community and quash them and discourage evangelism,” said another source.

The member of the legal committee said he believes that eventually Topal and Tastan will be acquitted. But even if they win the court case, the damage from the publicity war on the church will not be as easy to repair.

“I think everything will stay the same, because the case won’t be reported in the news,” he said. “The issue was not about whether these two were guilty or not. When this first broke out it was in the news for days. When it is over it will barely make it to a newspaper corner, and we won’t be able to give a message for the public because we don’t wield media power. We comfortably carry our quiet voice, and we will until then.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Witnesses indicate ringleader wasn’t only one planning to kill three Christians.

MALATYA, Turkey, September 15 (Compass Direct News) – Testimony in the murder case of three Christians here indicates the attack was premeditated for at least two suspects, despite the defense team’s insistence that the killers acted spontaneously.

The 11th hearing on the murders at a publishing house in this southeastern city 17 months ago took place Friday (Sept. 12) at the Malatya Third Criminal Court. Two Turkish Christians who converted from Islam, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and a German, Tilmann Geske, were brutally tortured and killed on April 18, 2007.

Mahmut Kudas, one of the three witnesses called to testify, said murder suspect Cuma Ozdemir met with him the week before the murder and said that he was going to tell him something important.

“If you don’t hear from me by Friday, someone will call you and tell you the location of a letter. Get the letter and give it to the person who called you,” Ozdemir said to Kudas on April 13, 2007, the Friday before the attack on the following Wednesday, according to his testimony.

When Kudas asked him why, Ozdemir replied, “There are 49 house churches and priests in Malatya.” When Kudas asked him what he was thinking of doing, he replied, “Those who know this will die. I will become a martyr.”

Kudas, 20, lived in the same dormitory as many of the other suspects. When he asked Ozdemir if Emre Gunaydin, the suspected ringleader of the murders, was the leader of this operation, Cuma Ozdemir nodded in confirmation.

The five accused murderers are Hamit Ceker, Cuma Ozdemir, Abuzer Yildirim, Salih Gurler and Emre Gunaydin. They were all between the ages of 19 and 21 at the time of the murders.

Another witness, Mehmet Uludag, a former classmate of some of the suspects, said he also spoke with Ozdemir before the murders. Uludag said Ozdemir told him that he and two others were about to do something big.

Ozdemir then instructed Uludag, 20, that he would leave a letter at an undisclosed location and that he must call Muammer Ozdemir – who is expected to testify at a future hearing – to learn the whereabouts of the letter. The two must then deliver the letter to the police or the gendarme, Cuma Ozdemir told Uludag.

“If I come through, I will explain all this to you. If I am lost, then read the letter. It will explain everything,” he reportedly told Uludag.

On the day of the murders, Uludag sent Muammer Ozdemir a text message asking for the whereabouts of the letter. The latter told him it was under a bed in the dormitory, but Uludag did not retrieve it since he was questioned by the police the same day.


Aiding Murderers

The letters in question are similar to those mentioned by suspect Hamit Ceker in a previous hearing. He said in his interrogation that the night before the murder, he and another of the defendants had sat in the hall of their dormitory, writing a letter to their families in case things did not turn out well.

Both Kudas and Uludag said they did not report this suspicious behavior, as they believed Cuma Ozdemir was exaggerating rather than engaged in a conspiracy.

In forthcoming hearings the plaintiff attorneys will try to accuse these witnesses of aiding and abetting the murderers, said Orhan Kemal Cengiz, leading the team of plaintiff lawyers.

“They knew what was going to happen, so they should have talked to prosecutors or police officers,” Cengiz told Compass, criticizing the witnesses for withholding information.

The third person to testify in the trial was Gunaydin’s former girlfriend, Turna Isikli, 21. She said the day before the murder Gunaydin sent her a text message and said, “Tomorrow I will be interrogated.” She said she thought this referred to a meeting with his father about issues related to school.


Accusations, Tempers Flare

The testimonies indicate that at least two of the suspects planned the murder of the three Christians, contradicting their earlier statements that they came to the publishing house with no intent to kill the evangelicals.

In a Jan. 14 hearing, accused killer Hamit Ceker claimed the group of five men only planned to seize incriminating evidence against the Christians, although they carried guns, rope, knives and a pair of plastic gloves.

In a subsequent hearing on June 10, the five men declared their innocence and blamed one or more of the others. Most of the blame fell on suspected ringleader Gunaydin, whom the suspects claimed murdered the three Christians. The other four suspects said they only obeyed him for fear of his alleged police and mafia connections.

Gunaydin has claimed that all five planned to raid the office together. In a May 12 hearing he implicated suspect Salih Gurler for leading the attacks, saying violence exploded when Aydin slandered Islam and said Jesus was God.

Tensions flared at one point in Friday’s hearing when Gunaydin noticed one of the plaintiff attorneys drinking from a water bottle. Pious Muslims are currently observing the month of Ramadan in which eating and drinking are prohibited from sunrise to sunset.

“This is the month of Ramadan and we are fasting, but you are drinking water across from us,” Gunaydin said. “Show a little respect.”

“What shall we do, make them fast?” responded judge Eray Gurtekin, according to Sabah national daily.

Gunaydin also raised eyebrows when he stood up and lashed out at plaintiff attorney Ozkan Yucel when his cellular phone rang in the courtroom. He said, “Turn off your phone, you are disturbing my concentration.”

The case took an important twist in the 10th hearing on Aug. 21, when prosecuting attorneys suggested that shadowy elements deep within the Turkish state orchestrated the murder.

In the last hearing plaintiff attorneys requested the case be integrated with an investigation into Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy in various murders.

In January police uncovered and started arresting members of Ergenekon. A criminal investigation has linked these members to high-profile attacks, murders and plans to engineer domestic chaos and ultimately overthrow the government.

Ergenekon was not mentioned at Friday’s hearing because the plaintiff lawyers have not received the investigation file from Istanbul. They requested the file at the Aug. 21 hearing in Malatya.

The far-reaching conspiracy and its connection to the Malatya case, however, has had a positive impact on the criminal proceedings, plaintiff lawyers say: The judges are far more cooperative than the beginning of the case, in which they frequently rebuffed demands from the prosecution for evidence and witnesses.

“This last hearing was the first time the court accepted nearly all demands from us,” said plaintiff attorney Cengiz. “They are taking the case much more seriously now because there are many indications this is not the work of five youngsters but of dark forces behind the scenes.”


Protestants Targeted

The recent hearing comes amid complaints from Turkey’s tiny Protestant community that it is being targeted for violence.

On Sept. 5 the Turkish Alliance of Protestant Churches filed a complaint to the Prime Ministry’s Human Rights Directorate that security forces were not offering them adequate protection in the face of increasing attacks, according to Sabah.

Turkish police responded to the complaints and released information on recent attacks against Christians. They said a majority of attackers were not arrested, and those that were detained merely paid a fine and were later released.

Susanne Geske, wife of the martyred Tilmann Geske, filed a lawsuit against the Turkish Ministry of Internal Affairs on Wednesday (Sept. 10) for not taking preventative measures against the murders. The lawsuit calls for 630,000 Turkish lira (US$507,000) for physical and immaterial compensation.

Geske’s lawyer, Ibrahim Kali, told NTV, “It is the basic duty of a government to protect the rights of life and freedom of religion and conscience. But the government did not protect the liberties of religion and conscience of those close to my client.”

The next hearing in the Malatya murder case is scheduled for Oct. 16.

Report from Compass Direct News